In the Exodus account, a book brimming with God’s sovereignty- not least of which includes Paul’s citation of 9:16 in the ninth chapter of Romans- one is nevertheless confronted with a startlingly powerful affirmation of the viability of human volition. The curious passage reads thus:
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle” (Exodus 13:17-18).
Here we’re confronted authentic human choice; the kind of choice that genuinely affects the outcome of history. Had the Israelites passed through the land of the Philistines, they would have changed their minds and returned to Egypt, something the Lord didn’t want to happen. So in light of this volitional reality, God circumvented the problem by steering them in another direction.
Reading this reminds me of the brilliance of the Westminster Confession of Faith, particularly the first point on God’s eternal decree. With near poetic flare, the Westminster divines carefully, even masterfully, capture the balance between God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Allow me to quote it:
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
Here the sovereignty of God is unabashedly extolled. God has ordained “whatsoever” comes to pass. That’s everything. But note the qualification “yet so.” Here the Confession goes on to explain how this foreordination works, especially with regard to humans. Two things are especially highlighted. They want us to know that (1) human freedom isn’t trampled, and (2) the liberty (freedom) or contingency (what if-ness) of means isn’t ignored or repudiated, but rather established. Simply put, God sovereignly works through means.
So let us be clear here. Calvinism upholds both God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Both are true. Now how they exactly go together, well, that’s ultimately mysterious. I like to think of it in terms of a young child trying to understand an algebra problem. The youngster, having just learned his ABCs and 123s, happily affirms both letters and numbers. But when presented with the following problem: X+4=7, he cannot imagine how in the world a letter could be a number. His mind simply cannot wrap itself around the issue. So it is with God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. The answer to the problem is like the letter X. The solution is certainly intelligible, but it isn’t intelligible to the child.
If you’re curious what the confession goes on to say, check it out here: Link. (See Chapter III).